This Week in Games - Horizon: Zero Dawn

by Dustin Bailey,
It's a slow news week, but that doesn't mean that video games have slowed down. On the contrary—video games have never been hotter. This week has a giant new first-party Sony release, and next week is bringing us new RPGs, that hot NieR action, and the latest Ubisoft open-world thing.

Oh, and Nintendo's launching a new console.

I've had my pre-order locked in since the price and release date were officially announced, and at this point it would be foolish to cancel. (Depending on how you define “foolish,” I guess.) We should have a bunch of coverage of the Switch and its games going up over the next week, so I ask you to please look forward to it.

The question I keep asking myself, though, is whether I'd be hanging onto this pre-order if not for a professional need to cover the system. I think the answer is yes—maybe. Probably. Look, there's no way around it. This is a weak launch. Early word paints Zelda as a scale-breaking masterpiece, and even if there's hyperbole there it seems to be exactly what we've hoped for from the series. But that game's out the same day on Wii U. Are Snipperclips and 1-2-Switch enough to fill out that lineup in a meaningful way? I dunno.

I do know that this is the new box what plays them games Nintendo makes, and honestly that alone is probably enough for me. The Wii U was a failure any way you slice it, but games like Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, Splatoon, and Super Mario Maker mean that I don't regret owning it one bit. The Switch can only go up from there, right?

Well, I'll try to refrain from offering any more Switch opinions until I actually have the console. Let's talk about that Horizon, shall we?

First Impressions - Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn reminds me of Assassin's Creed II. If you've looked into the game at all following its release, the similarity to Ubisoft's trademark open-world design shouldn't be surprising. It's a giant map with collectables and quests and enemies to fight. It's got crafting and resources to manage. And yes, there are even a few towers to climb.

While the focus on hunting and crafting might make recent Far Cry games seem like the ideal comparison, there's a reason I say it's like Assassin's Creed II. That's because despite its obvious influences from a saturated genre, Horizon still feels fresh and original, built around combat that feels unique and a story that's filled with likable characters and intriguing mysteries.

If you missed the elevator pitch, this is an Earth where a futuristic society collapsed, nature reclaimed, and humanity has rebuilt as a collection of collection of tribes and kingdoms without a connection to their past. On top of that, the world is now populated by animalistic machines, taking forms ranging from horse to tyrannosaur and a dozen variations in between. You're Aloy, a young woman who grew up as an outcast from her tribe, desperate to learn answers about the circumstances of your birth.

The early hours of the game are incredibly effective as a worldbuilding piece, a character introduction, and an effective-but-not-restrictive tutorial. By the time the story has you in character as a self-reliant hunter, you are one—able to easily take down herd machines and reconvene their parts into arrows and weapon add-ons. In that time, it also introduces a sci-fi world and the extensive cultures which populate it at a perfect pace, revealing just the information you need to know without bogging down in lengthy exposition scenes.

Hunting means carefully stalking machines, knowing their weaknesses, and picking off the dangerous elements of a herd before taking on your primary prey. Some machines act as scouts, patrolling like Metal Gear guards until you take them out with a stealth melee attack or a well-aimed headshot. Others are merely but herd animals, running away from danger whenever alarm cries hit—which you can use to your advantage by chasing them into traps like the explosive tripwires you can lay.

Creatures are especially dangerous up close, and your primarily ranged offense means that it almost plays like a shooter—except that you're using bows, slings, and other slow-firing precision offense, so it doesn't actually feel like any normal shooter. You've got a limited weapon inventory but many different types of weapons to use, so your loadout is up to you. Everything feels effective. I ended up buying a rope launcher that tethers enemies to the ground just before an early boss fight, and I'm not quite sure how I would've taken that thing down if I didn't have that option there. There was no pressure to pick up that item, nor any flashing sign saying “this is the way to beat the boss”—I just happened to find an effective combo at the right time.

That's why Horizon feels like much more than its influences. Yeah, the elements of the standardized open world game are there, but the combat is much more than just a speed bump on your road to filling out a collectable checklist. Defeating machines means loot for better weapons and more effective defense against more dangerous machines, yet all that looting and crafting doesn't feel like a grind because you're encouraged to take down enemies in creative ways. Aiming for specific points—canisters, guns, and missile racks—in battle means knocking loose specific items you need for specific gear, along with disabling the relevant ability for that machine in that fight.

It all works together in a way that has assuaged any fear I've had about a “design-by-checklist” feel creeping in on the game. Combat is fast and deadly—you can die in a few uncautious seconds—and every encounter has felt entirely different. This is, of course, my impression at about six hours in. If there's any concern I have, it's that the abundance of crafting materials will turn into a mill that has you pressing triangle to collect and X to craft without any thought as to the resources you need beyond their function as a vague abstraction of your ammo count.

Barring that? Horizon has been pretty easy to love so far. I'm invested in seeing where everything goes from here, whether that be the story, the world, or the combat. I just, y'know, hope I can finish it before Zelda arrives. (Time is not on my side.)

NEWS

MICROSOFT IS DOING THE NETFLIX THING THIS YEAR

When PlayStation Plus and later Games With Gold launched, the slim monthly selection and odd “you own it for the life of the subscription” model seemed to signal that we'd never get the Netflix-style library we actually wanted on console. PlayStation Now seemed to be the closest we'd get, but that service is prohibitively expensive and subject to the limitations of streaming live gameplay through the internet to your PlayStation.

Now it seems that Microsoft is the company actually delivering the service we wanted in the form of Xbox Game Pass. $9.99 a month, 100+ Xbox One and 360 games in a rotating library, and you actually download, install, and play those games from your home console. Halo 5: Guardians, Payday 2, NBA 2K16, and SoulCalibur II make up the initially announced games, and it's probably safe to call that an “eclectic” collection.

Of course, that subscription has nothing to do with existing Gold memberships—this is entirely separate, and Games With Gold will continue to exist. It's a neat experiment at the very least, and certainly a better program than PlayStation Now. If Sony or Nintendo were to do something similar, with their far more extensive back catalogs? Well, let's just be glad that Microsoft has opened the door for now.

NINTENDO'S GOT A PRETTY IMPRESSIVE INDIE SHOW FOR THE SWITCH

Okay, I lied when I said I was refraining from any further Switch opinions. Only a little, though. Nintendo offered a showcase of indie games via livestream earlier this week, and I would describe much of that selection as “rad.” Runner3 is a Switch exclusive, SteamWorld Dig 2 and Yooka-Laylee are both hitting Switch, there's a dope-looking Advance Wars clone called Wargroove and really, way too much to list out here. Just look at the graphic!

In this respect, it seems that the Switch is picking up where Vita left off, as a portable home for some really cool indie games. Sony got good about ensuring cross-buy was available for most of those games between PS4 and Vita, but Switch has the added benefit of no mussing with saves and data transfers between home and portable versions of these games. That means a very real, clear benefit to prefer the Nintendo versions of these games—something third-party games at any scale haven't enjoyed for a long, long time.

THE VIDEO GAME HISTORY FOUNDATION HAS LAUNCHED

Game history is a topic very dear to me—and if you've paid any attention to the blurbs opening up these columns, that should be clear. There's not much room here to wax philosophical on the value of media history or the study of games as cultural artifacts, but suffice to say that I'm a big believer in preserving game media as best we can. Obviously a lot of things are well-preserved online in the form of ROMs, magazine scans, and other accidentally useful bits of piracy. But the lack of a concentrated, academically-minded preservation effort has been sorely missed.

Enter the Video Game History Foundation, which officially launched this week. Headed up by journalist and developer Frank Cifaldi, the VGHF's primary purpose is in offering a library of materials reflecting the marketing and cultural impact of games. In less dramatic terms, that means magazines, brochures, convention displays, trailers, screenshots, prototypes, and more available in an open-source format that should outlive the short life of the media it was originally reproduced on. Stuff gets digitized, then moves on to proper physical museums.

The ultimate goal is a comprehensive digital library of all that material, but it's obviously a slow process to turn all that stuff into readable form. Until then, materials are going up in the form of collections dedicated to specific topics, the first of which is the pre-release marketing of the NES. An example of the obscurity of materials collected here includes the script Howard Phillips used when initially demoing R.O.B., complete with handwritten notes.

This is insanely cool stuff, and you should definitely be keeping an eye on the foundation's website.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

1-2-SWITCH
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Release Date: March 3
MSRP: $49.99

Hey, it's exactly the sort of motion-controlled minigame collection we always hoped Nintendo would return to! Sarcasm aside, it seems that 1-2-Switch is the perfect party game for its home console, with a vaguely adult aesthetic that has just the right amount of winking and nodding at its utility as a drinking game and the mildly obscene gestures it requires.

ATELIER FIRIS: THE ALCHEMIST AND THE MYSTERIOUS JOURNEY
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd.
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PC
Release Date: March 7
MSRP: $59.99

This is the eighteenth game of the Atelier series, which is impressive for a series so definitively and earnestly considered a niche. I won't pretend to have much—or any—experience with the series, but I'll be taking a look at this one next week. The story sees the titular Firis on a journey to earn her alchemist's license, doing battle, exploring, and synthesizing items great and small to help you along the way.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Release Date: March 3
MSRP: $59.99

At last, a new Zelda. Like, actually new—not just the incremental changes to Ocarina we've been playing for the last 20 years. Everyone's excited for the series to drop the handholding, linear quest that's increasingly defined the 3D entries, but is Nintendo actually putting together a compelling sandbox? Is it going to capitalize on the strengths of Nintendo design or just feel like an attempt to cash in on games like Skyrim? Once upon a time I might've called the Zelda series my favorite, and I cannot wait to find out what they've managed to accomplish in Breath of the Wild.

NIER AUTOMATA
Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: March 7
MSRP: $59.99

What I know about Nier is that the people who love it really love it. That game was sort of an action-RPG, while Automata is a Platinum-trademark character action game spinning off of one of the original's multitudinous endings. The demo that released late last year was awesome, and in a week that didn't feature the launch of a new Nintendo console I'd be dying to play more. I hope I'll find time soon.

TOM CLANCY'S GHOST RECON WILDLANDS
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PC
Release Date: March 7
MSRP: $59.99

Now let's talk about the least anime game out this week. Ubisoft's latest open-world shooter eschews the tactical considerations of previous Ghost Recon games in favor of, well, Ubisoft open-world design. That might not be a bad thing, but I really didn't care for what I played of the beta earlier this week, and the promise of four-player co-op probably isn't going to be enough for me. Hopefully the deeper parts of the game pan out a bit better.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
The Switch will also see some smaller exclusives including Snipperclips, Super Bomberman R, and the latest entry in a series of surprisingly solid F-Zero clones, Fast RMX. The non-exclusives are mostly too dull and too numerous to name, though I will say that if you haven't had a look at Little Inferno (also a Wii U launch title), you should.

Also, Lego Worlds is coming out of Early Access on PC and also coming to console. It was a nifty take on Minecraft when I first played it a year-and-a-half ago, and I hope it's turned out well in the meantime.

That's it for this week! I'll be desperately trying to barrel my way through Horizon in hopes of finishing it before my Switch gets here, so that'll be fun! There'll be loads more on the Switch and Zelda next week, so I'll see you then!


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